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Professor Joshua Smith to lead new UW + Amazon Science Hub

February 9, 2022

Adapted from a UW News press release

Josh Smith headshot

UW ECE Professor Joshua Smith is the inaugural director of the new UW + Amazon Science Hub, which will advance innovation in core robotics, AI technologies and their applications. Smith is the Milton and Delia Zeutschel Professor in Entrepreneurial Excellence at UW ECE and is a professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Photo by Tara Gimmer/Jeeva

The University of Washington and Amazon today announced the Science Hub, an effort that deepens the relationship between the two organizations and will advance innovation in core robotics, artificial intelligence technologies and their applications.

The hub will be led by Joshua Smith, who is the Milton and Delia Zeutschel Professor in Entrepreneurial Excellence in the UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering and a professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. UW ECE Professor and Associate Chair for Research Maryam Fazel will also serve on the hub’s joint advisory committee.

“We are thrilled that Josh and Maryam are involved in launching this new Science Hub,” UW ECE Professor and Chair Eric Klavins said. “The hub marks the beginning of a new chapter in the UW’s relationship with Amazon, and I am very proud to see UW ECE playing such a central role.”

Amazon’s initial investment of $1.9 million will support a broad set of programs, including fellowships for doctoral students, collaboration among researchers and support for collaborative research events. The hub’s initial focus will accelerate AI, robotics and engineering in the Seattle area while embracing neighboring academic institutions and the public through events.

“We are excited to collaborate with Amazon to advance research and learning in the College of Engineering and beyond,” said UW President Ana Mari Cauce. “The incredible potential for world-changing discovery across disciplines and sectors represents the best of what is possible when academia and industry join forces to accelerate innovation here in the Pacific Northwest, home to both our organizations.”

Housed in the College of Engineering, the hub is expected to expand its focus over time and tackle additional challenges at the intersection of technology, industry and society.

Maryam Fazel headshot

UW ECE Professor and Associate Chair for Research Maryam Fazel will serve on the hub’s joint advisory committee. Fazel is the Moorthy Family Professor at UW ECE and holds adjunct appointments in the mathematics and statistics departments at the UW and in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering. Photo by Ryan Hoover

“Solving the hardest challenges in science and engineering requires collaboration between bright minds in industry and academia,” said Alicia Boler Davis, senior vice president of Customer Fulfillment at Amazon. “This hub deepens our engagement with a research powerhouse sitting in our backyard, empowering Amazon scientists and UW researchers to work together to both address those challenges and contribute to the scientific community via open research.”

The hub fosters a new generation of researchers to tackle complex problems, identified by Amazon and addressed through the UW’s robotics labs.

“These kinds of real-world challenges and problems are increasingly a scarce strategic resource for researchers in robotics and AI,” said Smith. “The hub will allow our students and faculty to advance the state of the art in some of the most challenging open research problems in robotics and AI. And that’s just the start of the mission.”

“The research hub aligns with our strategic vision to advance engineering excellence for the public good. We’re thrilled to further deepen our relationship with Amazon and to leverage our research strengths to address these types of challenges and develop solutions that will benefit all,” said Nancy Allbritton, Frank & Julie Jungers Dean of Engineering.

Michael Wolf, an Amazon Robotics AI principal scientist who will serve as the UW research liaison, said the hub will launch with an initial focus on robotics as a collaboration between Amazon Robotics AI and the College of Engineering.

“Addressing challenges in autonomy, computer vision and machine learning is important to both Amazon and the robotics community at large,” Wolf said. “We’ve already built great momentum in defining flagship programs in robotic manipulation and 3D perception at UW, and we look forward to expanding our engagement with UW and building a joint community of researchers here in Seattle.”

Amazon and the UW have worked closely since the 1990s, leveraging their proximity to one another. Amazon has provided learning opportunities for students through project funds and fellowships, support for faculty through professorships and research funding and new spaces for learning and collaboration through capital support. Thousands of UW alumni work at Amazon, many serving in executive-leadership positions. Dozens of Amazon professionals have served in volunteer roles at the UW over the years, as advisors on UW boards and committees.

Many UW professors also are Amazon Scholars, a program designed for academics from universities around the globe who want to apply research methods in practice and help the company solve technical challenges without leaving their academic institutions.

“As someone with deep ties to both organizations, I am delighted the hub will both seed new ideas and deepen the connections between our researchers,” said Siddhartha Srinivasa, director of Robotics AI at Amazon and holder of the Boeing Endowed Professorship at the Allen School. “My UW colleagues excel at tackling complex and interdisciplinary problems, and the scale of Amazon’s fulfillment network provides a rich set of problems in AI and robotics. This collaboration will catalyze invention and exploration by bridging our diversity of perspectives and approaches to problem solving.”

The Science Hub is currently seeking research proposals from faculty across the University in the areas of robotic manipulation, robotic mobility, computer vision and machine learning. More information is available on the UW College of Engineering website.